Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Speed the Plow, The Shaker Chair and The Cocktail Hour

A Slick Production of Speed the Plow

Matthew Del Negro and Andrew Polk
American Conservatory Theater is presenting a brisk and cutting edge production of David Mamet's Speed the Plow through February 3rd. The playwright's minor classic is filled with his trademark rapid fire dialogue and taut plottings between clean-cut movie studio executive Bobby Gould (Matthew del Negro) and ambitious agent Charlie Fox (Andrew Polk). Rounding out the cast of characters is an apparently naïve young secretary Karen (Jessie Campbell) who becomes a catalyst between two men.

I first saw this one hour 50 minute no intermission play at the Royale Theatre in New York during the spring of 1988 with a great cast of Madonna, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver (he was awarded a Tony and Drama Desk for best actor). Berkeley Repertory Theatre did a splendid production of the play in 1992.

The plot is simple. Two old buddies of many years nearly have a fall out over a young secretary's idea for a non-commercial movie. The dispute is between Charlie's prison story, which is a surefire blockbuster, and the inexperienced secretary's strong feelings on an artsy novel about radiation and the impending end of the world. The latter film probably won't make money for the studio.

Speed the Plow (the title is derived from an old English farming phrase which was used to confer good luck and a swift and profitable plowing) is about Gould "in the midst of the wilderness" when it comes to making movies for the studio. The man is very susceptible to the arguments of both Fox and Karen. Fox offers material success if he goes with the prison story while Karen promises spiritual salvation if he goes with the non-commercial radiation movie.

David Mamet has constructed a rapid-fire play in three scenes. The dialogue in the first scene has a wonderful rhythmic counterpoint between Gould and Fox, and Karen is more a stereotype of a dimwitted secretary with a blank expression. Karen comes into her own in the second scene after she has been asked by Gould to "courtesy read" the non-commercial book on the end of the world because of radiation. He asks her to come to his apartment that night after she has finished reading the book (Fox has bet Gould that he can't seduce her that night). She becomes gung ho after reading the book and gives an earnest analysis. The seduction scenes get reversed since she convinces Gould that this book should be made into a film.

The third and final scene is a raging confrontation between Gould and Fox, full of the playwright's quick-fire, frenzied, intense dialogue between the two buddies. It is so intense that no sentence is ever finished. The verbal battle is brilliant, due to the extraordinary performances of Andrew Polk as the sleazy agent Charlie Fox and Matthew Del Negro as the upright studio producer.

Andrew Polk (New York The Accomplices, Walmartopia, The Green Zone) plays Charlie Fox with a comic bravado. He has pitch perfect delivery of Mamet's fast-paced lines. He is the epitome of some of the agents I knew in Hollywood. Matthew Del Negro (New York Touch, Burning Blue plus a recurring roles on The Sopranos) is excellent as the easily influenced Bobby Gould. He plays the role with an introspective quality that is interesting to watch. Jessi Campbell (A.C.T.'s Blackbird) has the difficult task of going from a wide-eyed, immature secretary to an intellectually powerful and emotionally mature person in a short space of time. She successfully makes that transition.

Loretta Greco has brilliantly staged Mamet's diatribe. An overture of canned movie melodies is provided by sound designer Jake Rodriguez. G.W. Mercier has designed a set that looks like a sound stage on the Warners lot. There is lighting equipment, fake palm trees and a large Hollywood sign in the background. "Studio workers" come out to put up a basic office set before the audience. They change the set to Gould's apartment for the second scene and finally come back out to put up the office scene again. This is done very smoothly.

Speed the Plow is playing at the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary at Mason, San Francisco through February 3rd. Tickets are available by calling 415-749-2228 or online at American Conservatory Theatre's next production will be Athol Fugard's Blood Knot opening on February 8th. They will also feature Jose Rivera's Brain People at the Zeum on January 30th.


A Quirky Production of Adam Bock's The Shaker Chair

Frances Lee McCain
Adam Bock is one of America's most prolific ,playwrights and he has a brilliant, keen ear for language. His past hits Five Flights and The Typographer's Dream have wonderful eccentric rhythms that remind me of a David Mamet play. The Shaker Chair is no exception, with unusual speech patterns delivered by the superb cast at Shotgun Players Theatre in Berkeley. However, the playwright tries to get his message of a 60ish-year-old woman's unlikely odyssey from being content with her life to becoming an activist in an environmental situation across in 70 minutes. He has added a dramatic subplot of a marital problem between two characters that needs to be fleshed out. The presentation is a co-production of the Encore Theatre Company and is currently playing at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

At the beginning of the play, Marion (Frances Lee McCain) introduces a recently acquired Shaker chair. She is very proud of this chair and talks about the intensity of the Shakers when making an object. She admits that sitting in the chair is "not very comfortable." The chair is a symbol that she should be making her life more meaningful. Her best friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth) is a steadfast environmental activist who wants Marion to become involved with a group of environmentalists sabotaging a large corporate pig farm where waste is poisoning the local water supply. The ecological group includes a very cynical 15-year-old girl, Lou (Marissa Keltie), and a young gay man, Tom (Andrew Calabrese). Marion is talked into driving them to the corporate pig farm at 3:00 a.m. providing the group will hurt neither animal nor human. However, she is horrified when she learns they have burned down the guard house. There are some surprising turns in this drama, which includes a real live pig following the fire on the farm.

The subplot follows Marion's incurably self-centered mousy sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby), who has been crying for days from reading a tragic romantic novel. She is the epitome of a woman who enjoys suffering. Dolly also has an uncouth husband Frank (Will Marchetti) who seems to be having affairs with several women.

Director Tracy Ward has assembled a superb cast, with Frances Lee McCain giving an outstanding performance as Marion. Her soliloquy on the Shaker chair is delivered vividly as she wonders about her life to date. Nancy Shelby gives an excellent performance as Dolly while Will Marchetti gives a strong performance as the unfaithful husband Frank. There is a confrontation between these two splendid actors in a brief, superb scene. The dialogue is quick-paced and there is a beautiful staccato rhythm to the speech. One could only wish we could hear more from these two characters. Marissa Keltie and Andrew Calabrese are very good as the young co-conspirators in brief scenes.

James Faerron has devised a strikingly pristine set with a plain beige wall with an entrance doorway and two significant chairs: a stern Shaker chair and a more comfortable chair. Lighting by Heather Basarab is effective, especially when red fire lights up the stage to signify the guard house burning down.

The Shaker Chair runs through January 27th at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-841-6500 or visit

Photo: Howard Gerstein

An Invigorating Production of A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour

Christine Macomber and Eric Burke
The Ross Valley Players company is currently presenting an intoxicating production of A. R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour. The stimulating play premiered Off-Broadway in 1988 with Keene Curtis and Nancy Marchand as the parents. I am inclined to go along with what The New Yorker, who said it was probably the best play A.R. Gurney had done so far. The playwright has written some brilliant dialogue for four splendid actors. This lighthearted comedy of manners is about the quintessential WASP family living in upstate New York.

During the comedy drama, with a two and a half hour running time, we see confrontations taking place during the ritual of the cocktail hour. John (Eric Burke) returns to his childhood home in Buffalo seeking permission from his very wealthy conservative parents, Bradley (T. Louis Weltz) and Ann (Christine Macomber), to present a play about the family. The new play is called The Cocktail Hour and it cuts pretty close to home, even though he has changed the names. He won't have it produced without his parents' consent. The parents prefer the gracious plays when the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Kit Cornell ruled the stage. They don't like the bluntness of modern plays. John's sister Nina (Beth Deitchman) is agitated that her character in the play is a minor role. Bradley's pronouncement is that play can be produced "after we're all dead." Ann, who seems to have a much hidden secret that is never fully disclosed, urges John to write a book about the family rather than a play - because a book is less public.

Eric Burke ( A Few Good Men) portrays John as an angry young man at war with himself. He wrestles with the role and hands all of the laughs to the three other characters. He is at his best when he attempts to find out the secret of John's mother.

Christine Macomber (many roles at 42nd Street Moon and recently at the Masquer Playhouse in The Shadow Box) is marvelous in the role of Ann. She gives full range of this wonderful character with the wittiest lines of the play. She allows Ann to slip detectably into possibly having one cocktail too many. However, at the end of the play she is back under control.

T. Louis Weltz (Mornings at Seven) is very appealing as the husband Bradley. He is a perfect WASP character in every aspect. As the evening progresses, his interpretation of a man who is vulnerable becomes very effective. Beth Deitchman (recently graduated from College of Marin) is very good as dog-lover Nina. She has a sharp sense of comic and serious timing and she is very believable when discussing her deep affinity for dogs.

Bruce Lackovic has designed a massive detailed set that includes a hallway in the rear, a living room stage forward and a detailed study on the right side of the stage. Fortunately, most of the action occurs in the stage forward living room set. Director Mary Ann Rodgers gets to the heart of the play, especially in the reconciliation scene between the stubborn father and the wayward son.

The Cocktail Hour runs through February 17th at The Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas, Ross. For tickets call 415-456-9555 or visit

Photo: Ron Severida

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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